James Lukaszewski, ABC, Fellow IABC, APR, Fellow PRSA, PRSA BEPS Emeritus

Just for a minute, pretend you’re five years old, your mom is sharing a very charming, perhaps often repeated piece of motherly advice:

“Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words will never hurt you.”

OK, OK. You can come back now. The truth is, that after age five, this charming advice becomes a lie and remains a lie for the rest of your life. Some words and behaviors can actually terrorize.

When you stop and think about it, sticks and stones may indeed break your bones, but the odds are, unless you have some serious disease, you will survive, you will heal.

Here are words and actions that never heal: Terror Words and Behaviors.

  • Abuse*
  • Arrogance
  • Assault*
  • Belittling
  • Bullying*
  • Callousness
  • Carelessness
  • Confrontation
  • Contentiousness
  • Deception
  • Demeaning
  • Denigration
  • Discrediting
  • Disdain
  • Dismissiveness
  • Disparagement
  • Embarrassment
  • Exclusion
  • Harassment*
  • Intimidation
  • Fear
  • Lies
  • Minimizing
  • Ridicule
  • Sarcasm
  • Shame
  • Surprise

Terror words arrive creating deep, lasting, sometimes permanent pain, suffering, misery and emotional craters.

For most of us, terror words can transform our attitudes, beliefs, perceptions and intentions in an instant. Yes, words can hurt, powerful words even used accidentally can cause serious injury. Words used as guided missiles, targeting specific people to give them pain and make them suffer, cause damage that is irreversible yet completely memorable to the victims.

Leaders, managers, supervisors, and especially attorneys, even reporters need to become sensitive to words and behavior that victimize, and re-victimize. I call these words “terror words,” because, like terrorism, both are fundamentally acts of communication that have enormous negative emotional and personal impact. These are words or behaviors that agitate, irritate, humiliate, and aggravate. These are words and actions that always create victims or re-victimize those who already are victims.

The four words that have an asterisk are words that often involve physical violence and physical injury in addition to verbally-induced emotional damage. In cases involving violence, victims can heal and move on with their lives.

  • In the case of bullying, the data shows that bullying involves violent behavior about 10% of the time.
  • 90% of bullying is verbal abuse.
  • In assault, the toughest, most terrifying part is more about what is said than what is done.
  • Abuse can also be physical but the most damaging and long-lasting abuse is verbal.
  • Harassment is a long-term physical, mental and verbal abuse of others.

When I talk about these words and behaviors with leaders, managers and supervisors, male or female, and attorneys, their initial reaction is often to be extremely skeptical. In fact, it is a stronger reaction than doubt; it is a reaction of disdain for people who apparently, as one supervisor told me, “Can’t take a hit,” and the leader used the word “sissies.” This is exactly the problem that leaders, managers and attorneys have.

There is often the intentional infliction of pain and suffering by using terror words, or allowing them to be used by others. There is automatic collateral damage caused when the leader, manager or supervisor unleashes these words and the employees or associates mimic their boss’s words and behaviors. These employees or associates feel authorized to use the same words or behaviors. For attorneys, it is the heritage of confrontation and aggressive behavior that needs to be overcome.

If you’re a leader, manager, attorney or reporter reading this, you might think that you’re about to waste your time with this “sissy-stuff”. Let me assure you, that having worked in the field of victim management and mitigation on behalf of clients (usually perpetrators), the impact of these words and behaviors is palpable, meaningful, memorable and in some cases, even measurable.

Let’s examine these “terror” words and behaviors, and think about each one for a moment:

Abuse: especially verbal abuse, is very debilitating and etched into a victim’s memory.

Arrogance: is generally making decisions for others without their input or their permission. Feelings of betrayal, helplessness and anxiety follow.

Assault: is what it is. But again, there’s physical assault and also verbal assault, which is even more powerful and longer lasting.

Belittling: is a verbal technique that is very destructive. It is emotional destruction through insult.

Bullying: especially since the vast majority is verbal in nature, is callously and intentionally ignoring feelings while inflicting emotional distress.

Confrontation: is either habitual or intentional obstruction, generally for reasons that may not at first be apparent, and leads to victim contentiousness in return.  This can often be an intentional management, leadership or legal style. It’s verbal combat, causing casualties’ with permanent wounds.

Deception: words or behaviors that intentionally mislead.

Demeaning: is always intentional and always emotionally destructive.

Denigration: is also a technique that is intentional, corrosively memorable and debilitating.

Discrediting: is again an intentional act or behavior that is designed to damage, even destroy another individual’s confidence, well-being and reputation.

Disdain: can have insidious psychological impact, demolishing self-confidence, corrosively harming self-esteem.

Dismissiveness: like disdain, generates humiliation and personal sadness.

Disparagement: is used by executives, attorneys to be intentionally confrontational and debilitating.

Embarrassment: is another technique, mostly verbal. By highlighting ridiculous contrasts and blowing minor behaviors and issues into major mistakes, it creates a sense of despair and failure.

Exclusion: the intentional absence of or withholding communication and contact, is insidious, powerful and debilitating.

Intimidation: It is the opposite of compassion and is the key ingredient in bullying. It is applying intense verbal pressure that causes pain, suffering, fear, embarrassment, and sometimes panic.

Fear: the absence of trust. The most corrosive personal emotion of all.

Lies: mostly cause confusion because when important people lie, the urge is to forgive them or clarify; then we find out they did it on purpose.

Minimizing: like belittling, is a corrosive and debilitating behavior.

Ridicule: is the most destructive, maddening behavior that can be launched against another person. There is no defense against it; it is senseless, devastating, never understandable, and creates feelings of loss, helplessness, frustration and resentment.

Sarcasm: A behavior and approach viewed by perpetrators as entertaining and funny. In fact, when I talk about sarcasm, I get this reaction, “Can’t you take a joke?” Sarcasm is only entertaining to a perpetrator. The technique is to focus on some ridiculous behavior, exaggerating comments, ideas or actions in ways that actually horrifically combine many of these terror concepts, discrediting dismissiveness, disparagement, and intimidation. Management groups often seem quite puzzled as to why sarcasm is not as funny to those who are inflicted upon. Talk about arrogance, callousness and insensitivity.

Shame: This is the arbitrary assigning of blame and responsibility in negative ways, often without adequate investigation and understanding. It is seen at its most blatant during litigation when each side tends to shift blame, responsibility and culpability to someone else.

Surprise: Especially negative surprise, layoffs, cutbacks, resizing organizations, sudden shifts or stoppages within organizations. The worst surprise for many isn’t really on the list but should be, and that surprise is getting fired. If you’ve never been fired in your life, you have no idea what I’m talking about. But if you have been fired or laid off or lost your job somehow involuntarily, you know exactly what I mean. At some point, literally every day for the rest of your lives, you relive the moment you lost that job. It is an indelible, emotional scar on your life going forward.

My hope for this blog is that more than just being a downer, it opens your eyes and your heart to begin avoiding something that happens every single day and is completely unnecessary and hurtful. The advice here is quite simple – knock it off. It’ll take some effort, especially when you consider that today’s modern leadership, American-style, is often predicated on confrontation, the clash of ideas and dueling intellects.

The product of this kind of thinking we see every day. A kind of amoral management style, completely focused away from those things humans need most: compassion, understanding, agreement and appreciation. This is a new pathway for many of you. Good luck on the journey; I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised, as will many others.


Here is some help: detecting, preventing and deterring the use of terror language. As you’re speaking or writing and you have the urge to begin using some of these words and behaviors, use this checklist as your guide:

  • If it creates victims or re-victimizes existing victims, stop.
  • If it seriously threatens reputation, stop.
  • If it creates concern rather than conciliation, stop.
  • If the approach is disagreeable, contentious, confrontational or combative, stop.
  • If it is testosterosis, stop.
  • If it agitates, stop.
  • If it humiliates, stop.
  • If it’s just huffing and puffing for opposing council and the media, stop.
  • If it irritates, stop.
  • If it demeans, denigrates, insults or discredits, stop.
  • Avoid thinking or speaking in military or competitive athletic metaphors and vocabulary.
  • If you are seen and heard as though preparing to wage war, there will be war. Stop. Wage peace at every opportunity.

Part II:

Language Lessons for Leaders, Lawyers and Managers Avoiding Color Words, a language that words are emotionally charged and especially destructive.

Part III:

The Strategic Power of Positive Language by omitting use of negative language, a concept that will change your life.